On Becta’s closure

May 24, 2010

Miles Berry

Originally posted at Open Source Schools. Declaration of interest: the Open Source Schools project, for which I have the honour to act as community manager, is funded by Becta, although I’ve written the following in a purely personal capacity.

The Treasury announced this morning that Becta is to close as part of a package of some £670M education savings.

I, for one, would like to record my gratitude for all Becta have done to lead the adoption of technology in education over the last few years. Their interest in, and support for, open source software pre-dates my own: I have fond memories of attending an excellent ‘expert technology seminar’ chaired by Dr Malcolm Herbert, then one of the Becta team, now at RedHat, back in 2000 when I was head of maths and IT at a school in Oxford, just starting to experiment with Linux and setting up a Samba server. Despite others’ comments on Twitter and in response to Rory Cellan-Jones’ article, Becta have done much to encourage schools to explore open source, albeit in a way which maintained the level playing field that was part of Cabinet Office guidance, and subsequently the Conservative manifesto and the Coalition’s Programme for Government.

Their balanced perspective provided a degree of authority to the important findings of their 2005 study of Total Cost of Ownership on the huge savings that schools could make through the use of open source software. Whilst the procurement model chosen for the learning platform services made it hard for Moodle service providers to make it onto the approved list, I have it on good authority that a Moodle/Elgg solution passed all the technical tests, and Moodle has been adopted by large scale deployments in Buckinghamshire, West Sussex, Cumbria and Lancashire and elsewhere; there’s more about this in Ian Usher’s excellent and perceptive post. Becta’s support for open standards, most notably SIF, but in other areas too, such as interactive whiteboards, was necessary to enable open source to interoperate with closed, proprietary systems, even if the FLOSS community haven’t always made the most of these chances. Open source was available through one of the other procurement schemes, when open source specialist Sirius made it onto the software framework agreement list.  Becta’s support, both financial and moral, for this community has been important, representing their willingness to grow a grass roots community of independently minded teachers and techies, as well as a way of sharing information and case studies about Open Source.

Becta have also documented open source successes, such as myself and three other Moodlers recognised in the ICT in Practice awards back in 2006, Buckinghamshire schools featured on the learning platform DVD and a number of schools using open source have received ICT Marks, including Paul Haigh’s Notre Dame, which went on to win an ICT Excellence Award.

Looking ahead, Coalition support for open source appears clear, although the proof of the pudding will be in the tasting. The Programme for Government states:

“We will create a level playing field for opensource software and will enable large ICT projects to be split into smaller components.”

The chancellor, George Osborne, when in opposition certainly seemed to ‘get’ open source, as he discussed at the RSA back in 2007 and in a Times article last year, seeing it as a way of making significant savings across government IT procurement. I suspect that as cuts begin to bite across the public sector, we’ll see more and more schools turning to open source as a way of both saving money and delivering robust, innovative solutions. More significantly, open source fits in very closely with the ideal of the Big Society, as Osborne’s ‘open source politics’ notion makes clear, with organic, flexible communities gathering together around a shared project which makes things better for themselves and for others:

Whilst I will miss Becta and wish my friends there success and happiness in their new ventures, the evolutionary changes in technology and society make it far easier for schools and teachers to support and challenge one another than was the case in 1998 when Becta came into being. Perhaps, though, we wouldn’t now be ready for these changes if it wasn’t for the difference that Becta had made.